In Search of the Origins of Dance


Andrea Deagon, Ph.D.

When I first began studying Middle Eastern dance in the mid-1970's, I, like my fellow students, was curious about where this dance came from.  Our families and friends asked us about it, and since dance was so much a part of our lives, we too wanted to know.  But we heard vastly different stories and had no idea what to believe.  Some told us that belly dancing began in the harems of the sultans, when hundreds of wives had to compete for their husband's attention.  We were even told that the sultan might be too monstrously fat to participate in the "reproductive act," so the dancer's skill had the direct purpose of showing him that she could satisfy his desires.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, we heard that belly dancing originated as a primitive birth ritual, or as instruction to women on how to give birth.  Stories proliferated.  We heard that women danced at the slave markets for the highest bidder, or that dancers performed at weddings to demonstrate sexual technique, or that this was the dance of the moon goddess Isis, dating back to the time of the pharaohs.

What were we to believe?  In the 1970's, there was so little information available that we had to take what we could get.  This might be blurbs from record jackets written by studio hacks with no knowledge of anything Middle Eastern, or the wishful imaginings of spiritually inclined dancers, or real research and observations watered down by transmission until the original meaning was all but lost.  I look back now and shake my head at how naive we were -- until I hear these same stories circulating today.  It seems that across the world, dancers and their audiences are still looking for a way to explain the beginnings of their dance -- and in some cases, looking in all the wrong places. 

What are the origins of this moving and powerful dance, so rich with layers of meaning?   Why are we drawn so naturally to search for these origins, and how can we best answer our own questions?

When we are moved by something that is beautiful, or terrible, or vitally important to our souls, it is human nature to try to understand it.  One of the ways we look for this meaning is to try to find or imagine its origins.  We sense that, if we can find its ultimate beginning, perhaps we will also find its deepest truth -- a truth that will open up the wellspring of our own creative power.  Our search for origins has inspired some of our most brilliant insights.  It inspires us to trace our genealogies, explore the intricacies of cell biology or evolution, and seek the ultimate source of all matter in the depths of space-time.  It inspires our philosophy and religion, from the Navajo stories of Changing Woman to the seven days of Yahweh's creation to the presocratic philosophers' exploration of the elements of earth, air, water and fire.  The search for the origins of what we hold to be precious and magnificent is fundamental to our way of understanding the world.  So it is natural that those of us who treasure Middle Eastern dance and want to understand it more fully should seek out its origins.

But much as we long for an ancient beginning-place, it is difficult for us to uncover the true past.  Time is the most elusive element, passing by and leaving emptiness in it wake.  History is almost entirely intangible.  Our ancestors have left us some material remains, visual images, poems and stories -- relics of surpassing beauty which inspire our own lives and creations.  But the vast majority of what was valuable and meaningful about the past has completely gone.  We will never know the names, daily pastimes, feelings, hopes, and dreams of the people who went before us, never hear their songs or see their dances.  If we could see them as they were -- humans like ourselves, living lives both hauntingly the same and hauntingly different -- perhaps we could find the origins we seek.

But we can't.  And in our ancestors' absence, we fall into habits of thinking that mar our search for the origins of this ancient dance.  One is that we tend to see the past as more simple than the present, and to imagine that today's complexity is a development from something more primitive and unified.  Another is that we tend to use the past as a justification for present views or practices -- we want to see our own ideas and practices as correct and natural, so we are easily distracted from the wide, confusing perspective of real history and slip into historical myths.  Only when we have come to terms with these tendencies in our thinking will we be able to explore the history of this dance, and form an accurate, respectful relationship with the women and men of the past whose dance was the precursor of our own.

In ancient Egypt, there were many different stories of how the world began.  The priests of Atum told how Atum arose from the primal waters and ejaculated the seed of all present reality.  The priests of Ptah held that Ptah spoke the generative words that brought the cosmos into being.  One story emphasized the physical and fertile power of Atum, the other, the power of language and intellect exemplified by Ptah. These are two different views not just of creation, but also of the relative importance of these forces -- fertility and intellect -- in the workings of the current world.  Like these ancient creation myths, most simple stories of the origins of Middle Eastern dance are essentially about what the dance means now.  Some of our "origin myths" emphasize sexuality and the dance as an instrument of seduction.  Others emphasize its feminist, spiritual and expressive potentials.

In the '60's and '70's, when the dance was first making a popular impact in the United States, Americans perceived its movements as primarily sexy and seductive.  Dancers, of course, were aware that Middle Eastern dance encompasses a wide range of emotions and projections beyond sexuality and seduction, but the dance's popular impact, and possibly its first impact on the women who began to study it, was in the realm of sensuality.  So some "origin myths" reflect this perception.  This desire to "give history" to the dance's seductive nature gave rise to the stories of its origins as a dance of the slave markets, as seduction in the harems, or as a proof of advanced sexual technique.  The idea that, because the dance was performed by prostitutes, it was originated by prostitutes, is another "origin myth" that prioritizes the dance's sexuality in a patriarchal setting.[1]  

The desire to emphasize the sacred or woman-centered potential of the dance gives rise to other "origin myths."  To claim the dance away from a patriarchal setting, and to emphasize the sense of freedom it engenders in women who embrace it, very different stories of origins are told: that the dance began as a birth ritual, or a dance by priestesses to the Goddess.  These stories reject the notion that women's physical expression, especially when it is fertile or sensual, is performed primarily in service of men.  They reject the male-centered, pornographic images of competing harem girls, happily dancing sex slaves, and lascivious seductresses, and create an image of the dance as a possession of sensual, fertile, self-realized women.  Sometimes woman-centered "origin myths" embrace the patriarchal myths of dancing prostitutes with a womanist twist: temple prostitutes are seen as icons of power, and the dancing  prostitutes visited by Flaubert and Curtis are seen as representatives of women's sensual independence.  Positive as these images are, they are no more solidly grounded as the origin of dance than are the harem fantasies.  They are still myths.

Many "origin myths," whether they emphasize sensuality or spirituality, seduction or self-actualization, have an element of truth to them, as least as far as we know from the dance as performed in recent history.  The dance is attested in many different circumstances.  For example,  it is done to accompany childbirth -- essentially, as a birth ritual -- as Morocco personally observed in 1967.[2]  Many 19th century Western travelers observed dances by prostitutes.  We have first-hand accounts that show us dancing in ordinary harems (though nothing to support the "competing dancers" fantasies of the '70's).  The problem with all of these stories is that they are not adequate explanations for the origins of Middle Eastern dance.  They are not history.  They are simply stories that, in the guise of history, interpret the present in mythic images that feel right to us.

In history, no simple story is ever right.

When 19th-century scholars began studying the different varieties of civilization, they envisioned human history as a series of stages from the most primitive to the most advanced.  They portrayed people of previous times -- Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, Neolithic (or modern) agriculturists in their small settled villages -- as living in the childhood of the species.  They saw Western industrial civilization -- that is to say, us -- as humanity's maturity.  They spoke of tribal peoples as simple or naive, while thinking of themselves as sophisticated and wise.

Today, scholarly thinking has changed.  Anthropologists have recognized that technological progress does not make people more intelligent or more complex.  By exploring the wisdom of native peoples, they have realized that the thought of non-industrial societies is as complex as our own.  The different voices of tribal peoples, from Native American elders to Indonesian villagers, has now impressed us with a different sort of wisdom.  We have come to recognize that maybe our own ways are not so superior after all.

But we still have a tendency to think of the past as simple.  It is still our instinct to seek simple origins -- such as a one-sentence explanation of the origin of our dance -- and we encounter this form of thinking constantly, from our students, our public, our peers, and ourselves.  So we try to explain the origins of the dance in simple, linear ways -- whether we point to the harems of the Ottoman kings or the rituals of the Great Goddess.

But simple origin stories can't possibly work.  What such explanations would have you believe is that for centuries, for millennia, throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Southern Europe, and India, no one did this dance or anything like it, until somehow, for some reason, a harem girl, priestess or midwife got the idea of dancing in aid of her goal (whether pleasing the sultan, worshipping the goddess or getting the baby born).  After that, other harem girls, priestesses or midwives followed suit.  And despite the fact that there are few harem girls, priestesses and dancing midwives around today, they somehow transferred their perceptions and their artistry to us. 

Put that way it sounds absurd.  And it is absurd.  If we are looking for the origins of this dance, we have to look for a story that is more complex than a sultan's dancing girl or a single kind of ritual.  We have to look at a whole, complicated, interchanging, developing world of many different kinds of dance, and we have to recognize that in some ways what we do today is unique and unlike what was done in the past.

It is important to realize that the movements of this dance are done all over the Middle East, North Africa, Southern Europe and India, and that this has apparently been the case for a very long time.  "Belly dance" -- an expressive dance which emphasizes complex movements of the torso -- is, quite simply, a folk dance of this area.  It is a way of moving, and a way of understanding what dance is, that ranges far and wide.  People of both sexes do it; it appears at many different kinds of functions in many different forms.  The basic techniques of our dance, and the spirit of self-expression in which it is done, are spread out so broadly throughout the area and throughout history that pinpointing any specific origin for it is an impossible task. 

Perhaps the fact that we are talking about a non-Western culture leads Westerners to simplify the issues.  If we considered an equally broad question, such as "what is the origin of country music," we would realize that we were discussing a wide ranging phenomenon which could not be pinned down.  Like many aspects of human culture, such as cooking and hunting, song and fire, "origin" is not really a valid concept for this dance. 

On the other hand, once we acknowledge that the movements of Middle Eastern dance exist in many related dance traditions throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean rim, we may focus on more complex but better defined questions, for which answers may be possible.  One such question might be, what is the origin of raqs sharki (solo performance of Middle Eastern dance by a professional female dancer at celebratory functions) as we know it today?  This may in fact be what people mean when they ask, "How did belly dance begin?"  And it is a more answerable question.  Raqs sharki, like rock or jazz music, is a more definable phenomenon that a widespread folk art such as Middle Eastern dance or country music.  Similarly, specific elements of modern Middle Eastern dance, such as veils, sword dances, women's cane dancing, and so on, have more approachable origins.

But even these more sophisticated questions of origins cannot be answered simply.  Any simple story is more likely myth than truth.[3]  The search for origins goes wide, and asks as many questions as it answers.  It seeks not a simple explanation but an elucidation of complex interrelationships.  To begin to explain the phenomenon of raqs sharki, one would need to investigate, among other things, the traditional role of women as professional performers; the roles of distinct ethnic groups such as the ghawazee; the social forces bearing on ordinary women in their dance expression in private and in public; the economic and artistic factors leading to key phenomena such as the formation of Badia Masabni's club; the developments in music; the effects of recordings, radio, and film; influences from the West; the impact of influential artists; the roles of women in folk performance traditions.  The better we understand these phenomena, the better we will understand the development of raqs sharki in the Middle East, and the farther we will come from such simple explanations of origins as "in the harems" or "as a sacred dance."

Unfortunately, some of the most profound connections of dance and history are the ones we cannot make with any certainty.  These are the connections of dance and ritual in the ancient past.  Because dance, until recently, was impossible to record, and because most of the world's people have never recorded their history or practices at all, we have no way of knowing what role dance played in prehistoric worship.  We do know, from ancient records, that throughout the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean, dance very often was an element of worship, and that at times ritual dances were performed by women, in groups and perhaps, less commonly, as individuals.  But specific descriptions are sketchy or nonexistent, and artistic representations do not tell us exactly what the dancers did.  Nor can we know what they felt while doing it, or what complex beliefs their dance supported.  They would almost certainly be different from what we, from our perspective in modern Western culture, could imagine.

We are in even chancier territory when we go back into prehistory, into the time before writing and realistic representations of the human body.  We know that dance exists among hunter-gatherers and agriculturists today in many different forms and that it often has a sacred function, or occurs at functions which are both sacred and communal. But comparisons with modern practices can only give us a range of possibilities for the past, not concrete information.  We cannot say for certain that anything we would recognize as belly dance was done by ancient priestesses in a sacred context.  There is a chance that it was, though most likely, not as we imagine it from the modern world.  In any case, regardless of knowledge or proof, ancient sacred dance remains a powerful and moving idea in our own creations of meaning through dance.

When people ask us "How did this dance begin?" they expect an answer that is rooted in material fact -- the provable world we share.  And this is the sort of answer we ought to give them.  We can explain that this is the folk dance of the Middle East, and perhaps discuss some of the factors that led to its popularity as a performance art both there and in the West.  Sticking to fact --however little there is of it -- is respectful to others, as it allows them to form their own interpretations of the dance without being influenced by "origin myths" that might not reflect their own feelings or beliefs.  But even more important, this level of caution and truthfulness is respectful of the people of the past, whose lives we do not really know and should not describe as if we did.  

At the same time, as dancers and artists -- and simply as human beings -- we are entitled to feel ancient connections.  We are entitled to tell our own archetypal stories through dance.  For this, the imagination must be free to roam -- to explore the images of birth dance, harem slave, sacred ritual, sacred prostitute.  These images are as much fragments of ourselves as reflections of real people and events from the past.  Our mythic past gives us a way of understanding ourselves by plotting our own lives and feelings into the sweep of time and imagination.  In our dance -- if not in our scholarship -- we may invoke any truth, any image, and experience we want to represent, from ancient priestess to village maiden, from prostitute to queen.[4]

[1]I mention patriarchy here because "origin myths" which emphasize seduction tend toward a patriarchal model: a women who is in some way disempowered (prostitute, slave, or sex-deprived odalisque) must use her sexuality to win favors from a powerful man.  There are, of course, models of seduction which do not emphasize female disempowerment -- but not in this brand of "origin myth."

[2]Morocco, "Giving to the Light: Dancing the Baby into the World." Habibi 15.1 (Winter 1996) 12-13, 32-3.

[3]For example, I recently heard this story about the origins of women's sword dancing: that during the French occupation of Egypt, the rebellious natives were not allowed to carry weapons.  So the women, dancing to entertain the soldiers, would balance the soldiers' weapons on their heads -- then run off with them into the night to supply their men.  A charming image, but clearly and "origin myth," since none of it can be correlated with any historical account or with what we know of the culture at that time.  Any investigation into the phenomenon of women's sword dancing would have to consider not only visual images from art and stories from contemporary travelers' tales, but also Middle Eastern men's weapon dances, women's cane dances, Middle Eastern attitudes toward women, weaponry and dance, and the transmission of dance within the United States, as well as many other factors.

[4]I am grateful to Morocco, both for her generosity in sharing her eyewitness encounters with dance throughout the Middle East, and for her interpretations of the pervasiveness of the dance as a social and cultural phenomenon; to Pat Taylor, for her insightful and sophisticated perspective on the complexity of tracing artistic and cultural developments in history; and to Ron Iverson, for his insights on the power of the concept of origins in philosophical thought.

This article was originally published in Habibi.

Andrea Deagon received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke Unviersity in 1984.  Since then she has taught at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) and at her undergraduate alma mater, Guilford College (Greensboro, NC) before coming to UNC-Wilmington, where she coordinates the Classical Studies Program and teaches in the Women's Studies Program.  She has studied oriental dance since age 17, and has had a wide range of performing experiences in the US and (opportunistically) overseas.  She periodically teaches local classes and regional seminars.  One of her goals over the past ten years has been the integration of her academic research and writing, with her goals and perceptions as a dancer.  These articles are a part of that process.

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